Schools, self-help books, blog posts and social media, are full of neatly defined steps to leadership. For example, I was browsing through a popular online business publication yesterday and as I scrolled down, I read, “The Top 10 Qualities that Make a Great Leader” and “Top 100 Inspirational Quotes.” We are drawn to headlines like these because we hope they will help provide parameters that allow us to get from our starting point to our end goal. We know it will be hard but we hope someone can make leadership easy for us- and reframe it as a neat and tidy final destination.
Take medical schools, for example- applying and attending becomes a process of checking the right boxes, taking the right classes, etc. High performing and compliant students can become hot commodities during this process and participants can forget about the qualities that make them unique. They may have dreams of owning their own medical practice, or combining their passion for medicine to fill a gap in the marketplace or community, but outside of business school, these leadership traits are not often taught. While it is important that competence is stressed in any field, I am also starting to realize the value in creativity or multidisciplinary collaboration for doctors and other professionals in training.
As I have begun the process of applying to medical school, I have become a connoisseur of sorts, of those who stick out from the rest as great leaders. Being so enthralled by the way in which someone comes into leadership, I started surveying the people in my life who I most admire. What I am beginning to realize is that leadership involves seeing beyond those well-charted paths and striving to open up new opportunities. I have seen this rare gift in working with Dr. John Shufeldt and those that he describes in the Outlier Series – an innate ability to look at circumstances or people and see their potential, something that is often invisible to others.
Another recent favorite example of radical leadership comes from Mountains Beyond Mountains, which details the life of Dr. Paul Farmer. Farmer is a physician and founder of Partners in Health who has a particularly interesting work schedule. He spends part of the year in Boston practicing medicine and part of the year in Haiti at the clinic that he founded. The book reveals parts of Farmer’s life, which most would say are far outside of the normal practice of a physician. On top of being becoming a medical doctor, he also has a Ph.D. in Anthropology and spends entire days walking about Haiti to ensure that a patient has taken their medication. He began his uncommon schedule and practice of medicine while he was attending Harvard Medical School. He would go to Haiti and come back just in time for exams and practicums. In one quote I particularly enjoy from Farmer, he says, “We’re asked to have tidy biographies that are coherent. Everyone does that. But the fact is, a perfectly discrepant version has the same ending.” Simply stated, cookie cutter habits and practices produce uniform results.
The question is, who would have encouraged author Dr. John Shufeldt, for example, to combine his law, business and medicine backgrounds to improve the delivery of health care? What professor or counselor could have persuaded Farmer to use anthropology to understand how the context in which someone lives affects their health? What makes both of these leaders unique from others who pursued the same degree, is their ability to see a need and use their passion to pursue it.
Stories of outliers, people who experience the world beyond tidy paths, intrigue and push us to look beyond simple definitions of education and job titles.
What are you studying or did you study and how can you apply it to a need in the marketplace or community? To help get you thinking, and collect what your brilliant minds think up, we have compiled a few stimulating questions, and would love your answers. Click here for the full line-up, or if you only have a moment, read below for the abbreviated version.
- Rank the order in which the following are important in terms of your career:
- High income
- Enjoying your job
- Filling a need in the community
- What are the top three careers you would pursue if nothing was standing in your way?
- Which leadership qualities would you like to better develop?